Shelter from the Storm
A healer and a warrior fight to survive the winter . . . and each other.
Grif is tired of life as a mercenary—tired of life, period. So he heads off into the mountains, not much caring whether he lives or dies. But when his indifference leaves him unconscious in a snowbank, a stranger finds him and insists on dragging him back from death.
Kiernan doesn’t really have time to nurse a stranger back to health; he’s on an important mission. He doesn’t know why the message he’s carrying is significant, but he’s determined to deliver it, even if it means risking his life in the winter mountains. Still, he can’t just walk away from a fellow traveler in need.
Grif didn’t want to be saved, and he sure as hell doesn’t want to be stuck with an annoying, naïve do-gooder. But since when do the mountains give men what they want? The snow is too deep to travel. Food is scarce. Grif and Kiernan learn to depend on each other, and eventually to care about each other. Neither of them wanted it to happen. But sometimes the mountains don’t give men what they want; sometimes, the mountains give men what they need.
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Grif knew better. Hells, a beardless pup who still thought his dick was only a piss-tube would know better than to hike through the Whitetooth Mountains this late in the season, and there had been a lot of long, hard years since Grif had been that young. Aye, Grif knew better; he just didn’t care.
Well, he hadn’t cared half a moon ago when he’d set out from Burtonsford. There were many people in that little town who wanted him dead, and he’d be damned if he’d give any of them the satisfaction of taking him down. The mountains might kill him, but at least they wouldn’t enjoy it.
So he’d wrapped himself in the warmest clothes he’d been able to steal and started walking. He’d filled his belly when there was something to hunt and gone hungry when there’d been nothing, and he hadn’t much distinguished between the two states. Day after day, working his way up and down the endless slopes, trudging toward a future he didn’t care to see. Maybe he’d finally found the state of peaceful acceptance those monks over in Bitramar had always gone on about. Maybe the monks weren’t as crazy as they’d seemed after all.
When the wind picked up, sweeping down the narrow pass like a rushing, icy river, he knew it was the end. Not enough snow on the ground to burrow into and find shelter, but too much of the damn stuff in the air for a man to see farther than a half step in front of himself. Would Grif lose his way and stumble off a cliff, or would he freeze to death? Were the gods up there somewhere, sipping their wine and idly watching him, taking bets on his horrid end?
No. The gods had no interest in a man like Grif Longreach.
Longreach. His favorite of the surnames he’d earned over his lifetime. It was the only one he wanted to take with him to the next world, so he tried to focus on it as he walked on. Not Battleaxe, not Sellsword, not even Runner, as he’d been known as a child. Not Goatblood, not Rivermud, not Seapuke. So many names, so many stories—so many things he’d rather forget.
Longreach, he chanted in his mind as he trudged on, leaning against the wind as if it were a physical wall. He was tall. He had a long reach. That was all. No blood, no battle, no weapons, no pain. Longreach. Longreach.
He stumbled and caught himself.
Then he stumbled again, couldn’t catch himself, went down—and struggled back to his feet.
What was he doing? Had he forgotten already? Was he too damned stupid to keep one simple idea in his mind? You don’t care, Grif Longreach. It’s time to stop. Time to let go. Time to give up.
Oh, shit. That was the problem. He’d blown it. Now that he was thinking of it as giving up, he couldn’t do it. There was another name from the past—Grif Mulehead. His own father had given him that one, and then tried to beat the reason for it right out of him. Of course the beatings had only driven Grif away from home, turned him into Grif Breadthief and Grif Sweetmouth until he’d learned enough to become Grif Quickhands and then Grif Smallboss.
Now, though, it was as though he’d gone back to the beginning of it all. Grif Mulehead. Struggling to his feet after every blow, refusing to lie down, refusing to give up. Refusing to be beaten, even by a force as powerful as his father, as powerful as winter in the mountains. So he kept going.
But he was slowing down. Freezing up.
That was okay, though. There was no shame in dying. No shame in losing. It was the quitting that was a disgrace.
So on he trudged. Falling more often, and starting to feel warm, which meant the end was near. Too damned cold to know he was cold; it was like being too stupid to know he was stupid.
It took him a while to realize the ground had started sloping downward instead of upward. Maybe a valley? Maybe somewhere the snow had drifted, accumulated enough to give some shelter. Or had he made it over the peak of the mountain range? Was he past the dry, windswept eastern slopes and heading into the snowy, windswept western slopes?
Maybe. But he was too far gone. No strength left to build a burrow, no heat in his body to warm even the smallest nest. He was done. It was over.
He knew that was true, but still, when he took the last step and his foot kept going with no ground to stop it, he tried to pull himself back. He flailed his arms, desperate to find something to hold on to, something to save him, but there was nothing but frozen air. He was falling. He was finished.
Grif Wrongstep. That was the name on the top of his mind as his body tumbled over the edge. Then everything was gone.
* * * * * * *
The man was heavy, almost too heavy to move. And, of course, moving him might kill him. He’d fallen from a good height, as far as Kiernan could tell, and after a fall like that, the most careful shifting could be enough to further scramble whatever might have gone wrong inside the body. The bank of snow had gentled the man’s landing somewhat, but not enough for him to be up and walking, or to be conscious at all.
Kiernan winced as his heel connected with the man’s lolling head. Dragging him by the arms had seemed better than by the legs, but the ground was uneven and slippery, and the man seemed to be getting heavier with every step. No, this treatment wasn’t good for someone who’d had a serious fall.
But freezing to death would be worse, so Kiernan kept working his way forward.
Luckily he didn’t have far to go. He’d set up his light shelter in the lee of the very cliff the man had fallen off. If Kiernan had taken a few more steps away before he’d loosed his trousers and painted the snow yellow, the man would have fallen on top of him and they’d both have been injured. The gods were looking out for Kiernan. Looking out for the other man as well, because since Kiernan was healthy, he was able to help.
When he reached the opening of his tent, he dropped to his knees and crawled backward, dragging his burden with him. He pulled his mittens off and took a moment to warm his hands over the low candle he’d been burning for warmth rather than light, then turned his attention to his patient.
No, not his patient. He wasn’t a healer, and there was no point pretending he was. He was helping this man because there was no choice, no real healer to step in and take charge.
Kiernan’s fingers fumbled with the scarves wrapped around the man’s face. They were a solid mass, the result of hours of breath crystalizing in the cold air. The candle wasn’t enough to keep the air of the tent above freezing, and judging by what Kiernan could feel of the man’s face, the patient wasn’t going to be able to create much heat of his own.
The solution was obvious, but Kiernan still hesitated. He snugged his hands in against the man’s jaw, his neck, hoping to find . . . well. To find either too much or too little. If there was enough warmth, Kiernan wouldn’t have to do anything, and if there was no life at all, no vital pulse in the neck, then it was too late and the problem was solved.
But the pulse was there, weak and distant beneath skin that felt waxy in its chill. So Kiernan made himself act. He worked gradually, prying at the man’s frozen garments, being as gentle as he could, but as rough as he had to be. There wasn’t much he could do, up there on the mountain alone, for a man with a damaged spine, but there was something he could do for someone who was freezing to death, so he focused on that.
He couldn’t bring himself to strip the man completely. He managed to get the top half exposed, though he left the man’s arms in his sleeves, and then tugged off the outer layer of pants. The leggings underneath seemed dry enough, and not frozen, and . . . well. The bare chest alone had been enough to destroy Kiernan’s equanimity. He stared at the width of muscles, coarse hair, and scars, then cast a guilty glance toward the man’s face—eyes still shut, thank the gods—before yanking at his own clothing. Jacket, heavy tunic, light tunic, undershirt, and finally skin. He leaned forward and lay his body against the man’s at cross angles—he hoped that was the most appropriate, most innocent way to do it?
As soon as his skin touched the man, though, those worries flew from his mind. He was so cold. Deathly, horribly, wrongly cold. It was like lying on a stone statue, not a living, breathing man, and Kiernan squirmed around to peel his own pants off, then lay flat on top, lined up head to foot, breathing warm air over chilled skin.
He broke contact long enough to pull his blankets over them, then dropped his head and nestled his mouth against the man’s throat. Be warm, he thought. With their heads so close together, surely no words were needed to communicate? Hold on. You’re safe, now. Be warm. Stay with me.
Four times Kiernan feared his efforts had been in vain. Four times he thought the man had slipped away, but each time, he pressed his fingers to the stranger’s throat and found the weak, stubborn pulse.
The wind raged on outside, and Kiernan knew that if he hadn’t stumbled across the curved cliff face that was sheltering them, he would have been in as much trouble as the man beneath him. The waxed canvas of his tent kept out rain and snow and held in a little heat, but it couldn’t stand up to the wind of a mountain storm.
So, again, the gods had smiled on him. Only as a mercy, he reminded himself. They took no special interest in his strivings; his achievements, meager as they were, had earned him no attention. But they had always been kind to him. Almost always.
The man beneath him shifted, took a deep, shuddering breath, and began to shiver.
Kiernan nodded in satisfaction. He’d thought of the gods, sent his gratitude to them, and they’d responded with yet another kindness.
Perhaps he should roll the man over and apply some body heat to his back, but the tent was too small, and the man too big, for it to seem like a workable project. He settled for throwing his legs over so he was straddling the man’s left leg instead of his right, and then nuzzled back in against the still-cold skin. He was shivering himself, a little, and wondered if there was a common rhythm, a vibration that could be set up between the two bodies—but that was probably not a train of thought he should follow. He closed his eyes instead and let himself drift off to sleep.
He gasped himself awake in total darkness. At least, he tried to gasp, but couldn’t get any air. He clawed at the vise around his throat, found a hand, a too-strong arm, and remembered where he was and who he was with. The man from the snow, from the cliff—he was killing Kiernan. And Kiernan wasn’t nearly strong enough to stop it from happening.
* * * * * * *
Grif fought for understanding. Was this the afterlife? Pitch-dark, icy cold, with—with soft fabric all around him? Blankets? Had there been a warm body pressed up against his?
He forced himself to release his grip on the throat of . . . whoever it was whose throat he’d been gripping. He shoved the bastard away, satisfied when it didn’t take much strength. If this was his enemy, Grif was well-placed to defend himself.
Except . . . “I’m a friend,” the possible enemy gasped. Sure, that was easy to say, but not likely to be true. Then, “I saved you!”
Saved him. Saved him from—from the storm. From falling. Grif dug through his memories and tried to put them together in some way that made sense.
“You’re not a friend,” Grif growled. Grif didn’t have friends. “Who in all the hells are you?”
“Kiernan.” The voice sounded young, like the gravel in it came from the attentions of Grif’s fingers, not from wear. “And, fine, I’m not a friend. Because my friends don’t strangle people who saved their lives!”
“Where are we?” Grif reached out and felt sloping canvas. A tent. What kind of fool carried a tent into the mountains in the middle of winter? Then again, the fool was doing better than Grif had managed. “What are you doing up here?”
“I’m traveling. I assume the same is true for you?”
Sure, call it traveling. “Where are you coming from? Which way are you going?”
There was a little hesitation, now, as if the fellow wasn’t certain how much he should be sharing. Nice to see he had some basic sense. Except he talked anyway. “I’m on my way from Sevastia to—to a town on the other side of the mountains.”
A destination he didn’t want to name. That was interesting. Grif’s head was foggy and his whole body ached, but there were instincts that couldn’t be turned off. “Must be a pretty important trip to have you in the Whitetooths at this time of year.”
“Oh, not that important. Still, perhaps you can help me. Are you familiar with this route? And which direction were you traveling? The same as I was?”
There was a difference in the stranger’s voice, an artificial casualness—as if he thought he was crafty. Grif swallowed his snort. He was stuck in a damn tent with an idiot, or with someone who wanted to seem like an idiot. Odds were good it was the first, but it never hurt to be careful. So he relaxed his own voice and said, “No. I was coming from Burtonsford. First town on the east side of the hills.”
“Excellent! I’ve been traveling for six days now, and I believe I’ve been making good time. I was told the entire trip should take about twenty days, half of that through the mountains, half on the flats. So I should be more than halfway through the mountains, now. Does that sound right to you? You’ve been traveling for four or five days?”
Was it a joke? It didn’t seem to be. “Somebody told you it would take ten days to cross the Whitetooth Mountains at this time of year?” Grif paused. “Was there any reason that person might have wanted you dead, do you suppose?”
There was no immediate answer. Instead, there was movement, too fumbling and soft to seem like a threat, but enough to make Grif shift, trying to find a better balance for defense. Damned hard to fight when he was stuck in a tent that wouldn’t come much past his waist at its highest point, but that was the same handicap for both of them.
He jumped a little at the first scrape, the first tiny flash, then relaxed. He had no idea what the boy was trying to light on fire, but there wasn’t much to fear from a flint and tinder.
Boy. Had Grif seen enough in that flash to know he wasn’t dealing with a full-grown man?
No. He hadn’t. He needed to keep his guard up, and to remember that even the young could be deadly. Grif himself had slit his first throat before he’d begun shaving. The old bastard had liked how smooth Grif’s skin was. He’d wanted to mark it up himself, wanted to carve— But that had all been long ago.
There was a stronger flash and then a glow before a flame flickered into life. A candle. The kid was trekking across the Whitetooth Mountains in the wintertime, and he was carrying candles instead of useful supplies.
Or maybe not instead of. Maybe not completely.
“What have you got to eat?” Grif demanded. He stretched his hands out and held them near the flame. Close enough to get some warmth, but also to examine them for damage. He turned them over, searching for the telltale white patches of frostbite or, worse, the blackness of dead skin. Nothing serious. The burning itch was familiar and possible to ignore, as long as there was no deeper issue. He’d check his toes soon, and his ears, but not yet. “Food,” he prompted.
Ten years ago, or maybe even five, he would have been trying to remember Sevastian hospitality traditions, looking for the best words to cue the response he wanted. He would have tried to make things smooth and tidy and easy. Now, though, he scowled and leaned a bit to the side, giving his right arm free access to— “Where’s my blade?”
No, Grif wasn’t going to play that game. “My sword. Give it to me.”
“I haven’t seen—”
Grif’s arm moved reflexively; good to see his instincts were still working. The back of his hand smashed against the kid’s cheek and the kid fell sideways, almost on top of the candle, and stared up at him, eyes wide and dark in the dim light.
“You don’t want me to ask again. So, where’s my sword?”
A pause, then, “In the snow!”
“In the snow?”
The kid’s desperation sounded real. “I didn’t know what to do with it, so I threw it into the snow. I can find it for you tomorrow.”
“Why didn’t you leave it alone?”
The boy pushed himself up onto his elbow and just like that, the fear was gone from his face. “Oh, I wonder why I wouldn’t want the violent maniac in my tent to be an armed violent maniac? What could I possibly have been thinking?”
“Does this strike you as a good time to be sarcastic?”
“To be honest, I’ve never been much good at choosing times for that.”
Grif’s snort caught him by surprise. Had he almost laughed? He needed to keep a lid on that.
Still, the kid had a point. And it wasn’t like the sword was special or anything, merely serviceable. Once it got light, the kid would go hunt through the snow and find it, and Grif wouldn’t need it in the meantime. He wouldn’t need a weapon to protect himself against a lightweight like the kid. “So where’s your food?”
“Are you—are you sure about the distances?” The smart-ass was gone, replaced by the serious, worried young man from before. “I was rationing my meals with the understanding that I’d be able to restock in five days. If—”
“You’re wasting my time again,” Grif said, and looked down at his hand. No, there was no need for a weapon.
“I’ll starve! I need that food for myself—”
And wonder of wonders, the kid did stop. Stopped talking, stopped moving. He sat there in the candlelight and stared at Grif, waiting.
“You might starve,” Grif agreed, keeping his voice as light and reasonable as possible. He was a teacher, and his student needed a lesson. “But a ‘might starve’ is a fuck of a lot better than an ‘absolutely will get beat to death.’”
Maybe the kid’s eyes widened a little more, but that was all. Hopefully it meant he was listening.
“So. Your best play right now is to give me the food. That’s what keeps you alive through the next five minutes. After that?” Grif shrugged. “After that, who knows what happens? You starve or you don’t. But you’re still alive to find out.”
“I saved your life.” Not outraged, not whining, but quietly surprised, as if the kid lived in a world where favors were always repaid and good deeds led to good results.
“And now I’m saving yours, by giving you a minute to collect yourself and get smart.”
It wouldn’t be all that hard to push the kid aside and dig through the pack in the corner of the tent. Wouldn’t be that hard to kill him, either, but there was no need. Grif waited a few breaths, and then the kid huffed out through his nose and reached for the pack. “There isn’t much.”
Grif made the kid spread it all out on the blankets. Most of a loaf of white bread, some dried apples, and about half a pound of cured meat. Damn. Even without Grif taking a share, even if the weather hadn’t gone bad, there was still no way the kid would have made it through the rest of his trip.
Grif drew the food toward himself, then grabbed a handful of apple chunks and tossed a few in his mouth while still watching the kid. They were tasty and welcome, but it was best not to shock his empty stomach with too much at once. Better to distract himself from his hunger. “What did you say your name was?”
A long time passed before the grudging “Kiernan” came.
Grif nodded and leaned back on one elbow. “You running away from home, Kiernan? Or . . . chasing after a girl? Is that it?”
“I’m not a child. And I’m not on some fool’s quest. I have important business.”
“Of course you do.” Another bite of apple. “But you’re going to need a different plan.”
“Because even if the weather cleared, you’d have two weeks of hard walking before you got through the mountains. And the weather isn’t going to clear. Not for three or four months, minimum. The mountains are impassible until then.”
“Three or four—” The kid—Kiernan—shook his head. “No, that’s not acceptable. My mission is—”
He broke off.
“Your mission?” Grif prompted.
“Of course it is.”
“That’s fine. I won’t make you tell me.”
“You couldn’t—” Kiernan caught himself, clearly realizing it wasn’t a good idea to practically dare a man to interrogate him. “But I must cross the mountains. I can’t return home until my message is delivered, and I can’t wait—”
He stopped, and Grif smiled in what was hopefully a kindly manner. “Your message,” he prompted. “Very important. Time is of the essence.”
For a horrible moment, Grif thought the boy might cry. Instead, he shook himself like a dog coming out of the ocean and said, “You have my food. You have most of my blankets. I’m not a fighter, not by training nor by nature. I am at your mercy. So there’s no reason for me to be on my guard against you; on guard or not, I would not be able to effectively resist. With that in mind, I see no reason to stay awake. I hope you will allow me to sleep.”
Fancy talk, which had never much impressed Grif, but spoken with a quiet dignity that held greater power than the words themselves.
So when Kiernan bundled his thin blanket around himself and lay down, Grif didn’t try to stop him. Instead, he lay down himself, nestled in close, back to back, the way he would with a comrade. If he had comrades anymore, which he damn well didn’t.
Still, he threw the thick blanket over both of them; Kiernan was a source of heat, and Grif couldn’t afford to let himself get chilled again.
That was all. There was nothing comforting in the gentle pressure or the even breathing or the familiarity of it all. And Grif didn’t need comforting anyway.